Upcoming Middle East news channel Al Dawlia has tried to be different from competing channels.
Early last year, a group of high-profile Saudi investors got together and formed Al Dawlia Media Group, a media company with a massive amount of capital and ambitious plans to launch several television channels over the next few years in the Middle East.
The firm's first ambitious offering is Al Dawlia, a news channel that is scheduled to be go to air on March 1 from Dubai Studio City.
When it does, the channel's nine bureaux spread across the Middle East will also simultaneously become operational. The multi-million dollar project, which included building and kitting out new studios at the nine bureaux, was undertaken by Dubai-based systems integrator, United Broadcast & Media Solutions.
"Our chief objective was to source new technology, but not necessarily the most commonly used, and put them together in a creative way," says Vasken Vartzbed, executive general manager and head of technical operations at Al Dawlia. "We were not looking at HD technology per se. But we did not want to use the same equipment in the same combination as all of the other channels here because the creative output - however different originally would end up looking similar."
Vartzbed, who has spearheaded several broadcast projects in the US, Europe and the Middle East prior to this, says it was important for Al Dawlia to put together a unique combination of systems that would be difficult to imitate.
"Often, if you come up with something original here, it is easy for popular channels to copy it and take credit for it. So I prefer to do something with different equipment so that imitation becomes difficult. We also chose a systems integrator who would respect our need to produce something different and would have the flexibility to make changes to the workflow to ensure operational flexibility and future scalability. We chose UBMS because they met our criterial. In hindsight, I believe it was a good decision."
A four-storey building has been kitted out for Al Dawlia at Dubai Studio City. The entire Studio City project includes a five-camera production studio that is expandable to eight in the future, a virtual reality studio equipped with three cameras, a master control room, two production control rooms, a newsroom as well as eleven editing rooms across different areas of the facility.
The main studio is equipped with five JVC GY-HD 101 cameras, a Ross Vision mixer, a Yamaha audio mixer, a mix of Marshall and Sony monitors as well as an Evertz Multiviewer and ClearCom talkback systems.
"We chose JVC's Pro HD cameras because they produce great images and have a futuristic vision. All of our systems support both SD and HD and we can switch to HD at any time in the future. However, for the moment, we will be producing and transmitting in SD. Only our promos are being made in HD," clarifies Vartzbed.
The facility also has a virtual reality studio equipped with three cameras fitted with sensors as well as a FOR-A vision mixer, a Sound Craft audio mixer and other associated equipment.
"We created a virtual reality studio so that we could create a three-dimensional environment for our viewer. We do not have enough space to create more than one set here. As we have several different programmes in a day and no room for more sets, we have to create them in the computer. All you have to do then is push a button and in five minutes, the anchor is in a different place. This way, we can have as many different sets as you like."
Special sensors have been fitted into the JVC cameras in the virtual reality studio to read every movement made by the camera. These movements can then be read by the system and it can change the background appropriately.
The virtual reality studio is connected to a production control room (PCR), which also acts as a backup should anything fail at the main PCR.
Lighting for the two studios are from Sachtler and includes pantographs and telescopic drop arms. The lighting control panels in the two studios are from Strand and Behringer.
The Master Control Room (MCR) is equipped with the Ross Master Control Vision Mixer, a Ventuz OnAir Graphics system, router and glue products from Network Electronics, and Evertz Master Clock & Multiviewer.
The ingest, playout and newsroom includes Nexio servers with Autocue's ingest/playout control, QNews Newsroom Computer System and Q MEDIA low-res browse and edit system. "This is only the second Autocue newsroom installation in the region. The first is in Oman TV," says Vartzbed.
The Autocue newsroom system includes a Q news module, which is similar to Avid's iNews and ENPS while its Q Media is a low edit browse system. What makes Autocue different is that the end user only pays a one-time license fee for the system unlike ENPS, which has an annual renewal fee.
The down side is that the end-user has to pay for all future upgrades.
On the news side, feeds can be ingested - either from the two studios or from any other source e.g. VTR, TVRO etc. This media can also be sent for live telecast from any of the two studios or any other source without the need for ingesting it into the server.
Wire feeds are received into the Autocue Newsroom Computer system, and the journalists can access this from their desktops.
The users can also browse through the low-res/proxy media from their desktop, create stories, edit them and record voiceovers. The edited stories are then sent to air with the Harris IOL server, which confirms the Edit Design List (EDL).
The material from the editing machines are transferred to the Harris Nexio server through FTP. In the meantime, channel branding and on-air graphics are inserted into the MCR by the Ventuz system.
"The Autocue system allows the broadcaster to integrate different types of information it takes from one central point - whether feeds from Reuters, media, video, graphics etc... or scripting for various programmes," explains Parwaiz Anjum, senior systems & technical manager, UBMS.
"The main challenge here was providing multi-lingual support and integrating Autocue with Harris and Miranda Graphics systems. Autocue, however, has more flexibility than other vendors so it was easier."
Vartzbed calls this workflow unique because of the way these systems have been brought together. "JVC cameras and the Ross mixer; the Autocue news system with Harris servers and the Ventuz OnAir Graphics System is a new combo," he explains.
Vartzbed was keen to go with Ventuz rather than Miranda or Vizrt for on air graphics.
"I got acquainted with Ventuz two years ago when I was project manager for CNBC Arabiya. There is a tendency for many channels in this region to pick the same solutions as other competing channels. I realised the potential Ventuz had for bringing new aspects into channel branding. Since we also had a whole year to plan ahead, we ensured that our graphics operator had sufficient time to train on Ventuz technology. Additionally, since they have an office in Dubai, we felt that support would not be a problem if we required it."
Likewise, he explains that Autocue and Miranda's VertigoX systems have not been combined together in the past. "Vertigo was controlling the Ventuz through the Autocue newsroom system. The Vertigo has never worked with Autocue as a news system so for both vendors, this was a challenge but they were willing to work together and we have found solutions."
Owing to the fact that Al Dawlia was planning to open several news bureaux simultaneously across the Middle East with studios, the channel had to have a significant amount of start-up capital. This meant that Vartzbed had to keep a tight rein on budget and come up with creative but cost effective solutions. So when it came to picking a video wall, he gave the traditional Barco video wall a pass and picked something new.
"We did not have the kind of space that a Barco video wall would require and needed a space saving solution while also ensuring that it would not compromise the quality of the images. This is when I saw the Orion flat screen monitors and when we put them close to each other, we loved it. These monitors come without frames so you can see the pictures without them. The colours and pictures are much sharper. We asked the Ventuz programmer if their technology could control these video walls. He was positive so we went ahead with this," explains Vartzbed.
For UBMS itself, this project was a big challenge. "I reckon this is one of the largest newsroom projects in the Middle East other than Al Jazeera. There are about 120 people in this office," claims Reza Mehdizadeh. "Within the budget Al Dawlia proposed, we had to put together a creative design and give them what they wanted without bending an arm and a leg for it. I think we managed that quite successfully."
While the challenges with regards to integration were anticipated, what Al Dawlia was not prepared for when it moved into Studio City were some of the issues of shifting into a new terrain. Studio City is a newly constructed facility in Dubai to accommodate the growing production demands of the Middle East.
Moving in brought with it some challenges for Al Dawlia because it was one of the newer tenants - in fact, it claims to be the first to have moved in. Al Dawlia is currently struggling to resolve electricity issues with Dubai Electricity & Water Authority. This has meant that the TV station is running its own generator to ensure electricity supply.
"We are paying about US $215 a day for the generator's fuel to keep our 24/7 operation running," comments Vartzbed.
"We finalised everything and then we realised that we had to make special designs and put in different cables to get DEWA's approval. Without this, we cannot get electricity. This has put a spoke in our wheel. We have had to purchase this generator and have been running on it for the last three months. We would have liked greater support from the relevant authorities to ensure that things moved a bit more smoothly for us," says Vatrzbed.
However, Jamal Al Sharif, CEO of Dubai Studio City clarifies that this was an exceptional case and other tenants did not have similar problems.
"The tenant in question had problems because of the nature of changes he made to the design of his building after the handover. We have given our clients a list of certified contractors who can help them make changes to the design and meet the requirements of the zoning authorities and organisations such as DEWA. In this specific case, a different fit out contractor was used. Unfortunately, DEWA only accepts drawings from an electrical contractor and the fit out contractor did not have the license for the same. We are trying to help Al Dawlia source the right people now and ensure their drawings meet the stipulations set by DEWA. You must understand that at the end of the day, these stipulations are in place to ensure the safety of our tenants. Their safety is of paramount importance to us."
Al Sharif also clarified that Studio City had contracted the project to two international studio specialists - Bastion Associates and BDI.
"These people have been responsible for designing studios for Al Jazeera, Fox Sports, Dubai Media Inc and so on. We also did two separate surveys with our broadcast and production clients in Media City and got responses from nearly 80% of them on their expectations in terms of electricity, power, space, backup power and so on. We have incorporated almost all these demands. We will continue to support our clients to get all the help they need to begin operations and are working with Al Dawlia to resolve their problems."
At the time of going to press, we were told both Studio City and Al Dawlia were working together to ensure the tenant had drawings that complied with DEWA's requirements so that it would be provided with electricity soon.
Al Dawlia hopes to break even within three to four years and make profit within six years, according to Vartzbed. "The revenue will come from advertising and sponsorship. We will be producing 85% of our news locally to ensure it is relevant to our Arab audiences," he explains.
For now, the channel will concentrate on Arab viewers in the Middle East, explains Nabil Negem, head of performance and quality at Al Dawlia.
"As part of Phase 2, we will also reach out to Arabs in Europe and the West. Right now, we have signed deals with bureaux in Beirut, Amman, Jeddah, Kuwait, Cairo, Tehran and so on. We have also hired reporters. All the studios are ready to go to air. In Phase 2, we hope to go to New York, London, Tokyo, Islamabad and so on. In a few years, we are sure that Al Dawlia will be one of the important news channels in the Middle East."
For now, Al Dawlia has put together key kit that will enable it to produce and transmit news efficiently. We will, however, have to wait a few years to see if this channel will also make headlines with its news stories.
• Camera: JVC HDV studio camera package
• Camera support: Libec JB-60U Jib Arm, TR-320 Dolly, LS-85PD(S) Tripod
• Microphones: Sennheiser evolution wireless
• Teleprompter: Autocue Teleprompter package VPS17" + Wincue News
• Lens: Fujinon Th13x3.5BRMU wide zoom lens
Production Control Room
• Production Control: Ross Video Synergy 2 digital production switcher
• Monitor: Marshall Electronics V-R151DP-AFSD 15"
Infrastructure/Main Control Room
• Master control switcher: Ross Video DVM-8900, AM-7900 , RCP-7900A
• Talkback Systems: Clearcom
• VTR: Sony HDV VTR
• Editing system: Matrox Extreme, Axio-LE
• VTR: Sony HDV VTR
• Studio: Sachtler Set Director Classic 1000HM Studio
• Newsroom: Sachtler Topas220W Studio version
• Portabrace carry cases
• Sennheisser evolution wireless
Server & News room System
• Autocue Q-Series core and software
• Camera: JVC HDV Studio camera package (w/o lens)
• Monitor: Marshall Electronics 7" viewfinder
• Camera Support: Libec LS-85PD, ZC-9 Pro zoom control
• Lens: Fujinon HTs18x4.2BRM
• Microphones: Sennheiser Evolution wireless